As has become abundantly clear to me over the course of my research, in the context of contemporary popular U.S. racial discourse, one is either Latina/o or Black, not both. Moreover, we see this phenomenon replicated in U.S. cinema, where characters played by Afro-Latina/o actors are racialized as Hispanic or African American and, usually, nothing in between. Actors like Christina Milian (who is of Afro-Cuban descent) and Zoë Saldana (who is of Dominican heritage) have dark enough skin that casting them as African American seems appropriate, if not the only option. While Michelle Rodriguez (who is of mixed Latino and Dominican descent), who can better embody a generic Latina look (Clara Rodriguez 1997), can easily play a Chicana from Los Angeles primarily based on her lighter (read: whiter) skin tone. Relying on dominant conceptions of racialization to construct a racial understanding of racially mixed and ambiguous actors, casting agents are often motivated by racialized casting practices (Kristen Warner 2010).
What becomes important is not how the actor self identifies, but how a mainstream audience would racialize them playing a given character. Subsequently, I contend that mixed-raced actors are associated with a perceived blackness, regardless of whether or not they identify as such, based on notions of a mixed-race identity as unsatisfactory and inconsistent with national inclinations to define blackness. What is evident is that these actors are (1) not being racialized as white in most contexts, (2) forced to fit into a highly structured and restrictive U.S. system of racialization, and (3) are usually not represented as both Black and Latina/o, ruling out a construction of racial mixture or acknowledgment of mestizaje (notion of mixture based in Latin America).
While, of course, none of this is surprising, it does lead me to ask: which social discourses concerning race demand an exclusion of Latina/o mixed subjectivity and why hasn’t media studies—with very few exceptions—taken a more critical eye to this phenomenon? To address this question, I turn to the film work of Rosario Dawson, who is a successful and critically acclaimed actor, but whose racial ambiguity and subjectivity is often a matter of public debate. Even though Dawson is often able to pull off the generic Latin look, there is always a level of ambiguity that must be clarified through racial comparison or other cultural markers. Mary Beltrán (2009) refers to this process as “cultural racialization,” where an individual is racialized based on perceived cultural factors that are, in turn, associated with a specific racialized category. The very need for such a process speaks to the intense desire of audiences to be able to racially identify a person as well as the flexible utility of the racially ambiguous actor.
In an informal experiment, one based on these questions of racialized identification, I conducted a brief survey of a group of college students in a course about race and ethnicity in media. Specifically, they were asked to watch a very short clip from the film Clerks II (2006, dir. Kevin Smith) and identify Dawson’s race as well as suggest why they saw her that way. This dance scene between Dawson and her white male romantic interest in the film is almost devoid of racial and cultural markers. The scene is set on the roof of a New Jersey fast-food restaurant, where her character is in the process of teaching the white lead how to dance to the song “ABC” by the Jackson 5—a song that emerged in the Motown aesthetic that was just black enough to appeal to both white and black listeners.
What these students were essentially asked to do was find a way to read a seemingly racially unmarked scene. While many of the students responded that Dawson’s character was racially ambiguous and that they were slightly uncomfortable in being asked to categorize her, most of them were completely comfortable making a claim. A fraction of those students read Dawson as Latina, yet the majority read Dawson as Black. Because the scene was so unmarked, they had to focus on the minutia of the scene to act as interpretable signifiers. And for all those students who read Dawson as Black in this scene, even though they were pre-informed of the details of her racial mixture, they cited the choice of music and the style of dancing as signifiers of the character’s blackness. Therefore, even for those who are informed of her Afro-Latina identification, they nonetheless read her as Black based on the context of the scene.
As an attempt to make sense of my findings and to answer why Rosario Dawson seems to be denied a mixed-race subjectivity by mainstream U.S. audiences, I turn to the work of Angharad N. Valdivia (2004). Drawing on the scholarship of Mary Beltrán’s articulation of the Latina body as a site of struggle, Valdivia asserts that the malleability of the Latina body is evidence of negotiations of racial constructions within the U.S. The very fact that the Latina body can be used in such a flexible manner, within the context of media representation, harkens to the way that U.S. systems of racialization exclude and are unable to accommodate for mixed-race subjectivity. Therefore, as a provisionary answer to the questions I proposed above, I suggest that due to the ambiguous in-between status of latinidad, Latinas can become imbued with racial and ethnic meaning based on the dynamics of the text. Dawson’s ambiguity, just like the song “ABC,” is just black enough to appeal to a spectrum of audiences.